Updated December 2020
On this page, we provide the following performance data:
- hydraulic fracturing water use – sector summary
- hydraulic fracturing water use – company performance
Hydraulic fracturing is a well completion technique used to break up the rocks around a well to increase the flow of oil and natural gas. It involves pumping fluid into a wellbore to create enough pressure to fracture the hydrocarbon-bearing rock layer.
The fracturing takes place at the start of the wellbore's life cycle. The injected fluid is often water, and it usually contains various chemical additives and a proppant, like sand, to keep the fractures open so oil and gas can flow to the well. For more information on hydraulic fracturing fluids, see FracFocus.ca.
What is "make-up" water for a hydraulic fracturing project?
Make-up water is nonsaline or alternative water that is injected into the wellbore to fracture the reservoir. Because hydraulic fracturing operations do not use water after a well is fractured, opportunities to recycle fracturing fluid (flowback water) within the well are limited, so make-up water accounts for most of the water used. However, flowback water can be reused to fracture a different well, thereby contributing to the make-up water used in the hydraulic fracturing operation.
What is the common source of water?
The most common source of water for hydraulic fracturing operations is nonsaline water.Our licensing process for allocating nonsaline water under the Water Act ensures that the effect on the environment is minimal and that the strain on nonsaline water resources is low.
Geology significantly impacts the total volume of water needed to hydraulically fracture a well, and the geological formations that a company targets can influence its overall nonsaline water use intensity. Geological attributes and reservoir characteristics vary throughout a formation, and this can have a direct impact on water use and hydrocarbon production volumes for what otherwise may be identical wells and hydraulic fracturing operations in the same geological formation.
At this time, we report on nonsaline water use by geological formation or group, but work is being done to incorporate geological subsets, or plays, in the future. By looking at companies producing from the same play, we can draw more meaningful conclusions about water use and best practices in industry. Find out more on AER plays in the AER's Play Workbook.
Can alternative make-up water be used for hydraulic fracturing?
We encourage companies to conserve nonsaline water when developing water management plans for hydraulic fracturing operations. However, using large volumes of alternative water for hydraulic fracturing can be challenging.
Produced water, which can be used as an alternative water source, is a by-product of hydrocarbon production; however, the amount of produced water varies depending on the formation. Formations are considered either "wet"—meaning that actively producing wells in the area could supply produced water for reuse in hydraulic fracturing—or "dry," meaning operating wells do not produce significant volumes of water to sustain a hydraulic fracturing operation. In dry formations, there is less alternative water available. As mentioned earlier, flowback water can be reused at a subsequent fracturing operation (i.e., as an alternative make-up water source); however, factors such as transporting and storing flowback water influence reuse. As a result, to reuse flowback water, the receiving operation needs to be close to the operation that generated the flowback water and be able to accept the flowback water relatively soon after it becomes available.
In some areas, there may be abundant nonsaline water sources available that can sustain an operator’s planned development without posing a risk to the local environment. Where this is the case, companies may prefer to use nonsaline water, as it removes the risk of moving and storing poorer quality alternative water on the landscape.
There are practical limitations to using alternative water: companies may not have viable options for alternative water sources (e.g., produced water) or may not have the infrastructure (e.g., water storage facilities) to support alternative water use. We also have stringent requirements in place for storing and transporting large volumes of alternative water, which has led to some companies using nonsaline water because it may not be feasible or practical to develop infrastructure to use alternative water. We are working to remove these limitations to make it easier for companies to use more alternative water and, in turn, less nonsaline water while ensuring that the environment remains protected.
How do we measure performance?
A company's water use efficiency depends on a number of factors. In hydraulic fracturing, it really depends on the stage that a project is in. While other technologies use water throughout the operations stage, wells that are hydraulically fractured typically only use water once—during the construction stage when initial hydraulic fracturing is completed after the well is drilled. Hydraulically fractured wells are expected to produce hydrocarbons for years after completion with no additional water needed. This means that the water use intensity of a hydraulic fracturing operation decreases over time.
The average water use intensity for a hydraulically fractured well is 0.54 barrels of water per barrel of oil equivalent (bbl/BOE) in its first year of production—a number that decreases to only 0.13 bbl/BOE after five years of production. This intensity will continue to decrease because most wells produce hydrocarbons for longer than five years without using any more water.
Hydraulic fracturing operators used roughly 15 per cent of their nonsaline water allocation in 2019.
The map shows where hydraulic fracturing operators are using nonsaline water as a source of make-up water in Alberta. Zoom in to reveal more.
Total Water Use
In 2019, nearly 24 million cubic metres of water was used to fracture new wells, a decrease of 17 per cent from 2018 (which was over 29 million cubic metres). This decrease was largely due to a decline in the number of wells that were fractured in 2019 (1942, compared to 2355 in 2018). Of the total water used in 2019, 1.5 per cent of the water was recycled and the remaining 98.5 per cent was make-up water. While fewer wells were hydraulically fractured in 2019, we continue to see an increase in the total annual production from all wells fractured since 2015, with over 515 million barrels of oil equivalent produced in 2019. Annual water use went up between 2015 and 2018 , but saw a drop in 2019, as mentioned above.
In 2019, over 24 million cubic metres of make-up water was used for hydraulic fracturing; nonsaline water accounted for almost 95 per cent of the make-up water used. While alternative water sources only made up about 5 per cent of the total, the volume of alternative water amounted to more than 1.2 million cubic metres—a volume that is still quite substantial and could have otherwise been nonsaline water. We saw a slow but steady increase in the use of alternative water for fracturing operations because companies invested in infrastructure to store and move this type of water.
Since 2015, make-up water use has increased by about 230 per cent, and the proportion of alternatives has increased by 780 per cent.
Nonsaline Water-Use Intensity
In 2019, hydraulic fracturing companies used about 15 per cent (23 million cubic metres) of the nonsaline water allocated, and hydraulically fractured wells produced over 515 million barrels of oil. Nonsaline water use intensity refers to the amount of nonsaline water in barrels used to produce one barrel of oil equivalent (BOE). As mentioned earlier, hydraulic fracturing operations usually require water only during the completion phase, while the other extraction technologies also require it during the operations stage. To enable comparisons with these other technologies (which is based on a calendar year of hydrocarbon production), we calculated the nonsaline water use intensity for hydraulic fracturing based on the first 12 months of available production data following the fracture, rather than production volumes during the calendar year. Using this methodology shows that for wells fractured in 2019, operators used 0.57 barrels of nonsaline water to produce one BOE.
Since 2015, nonsaline water use intensity for hydraulic fracturing has increased by over 63 per cent. This is likely because of the following:
- New technology: Hydraulic fracturing in horizontal wells is still a relatively new recovery method, and it takes time for companies to test different strategies to improve hydrocarbon recovery.
- Varying geological conditions: Water use intensity varies between geologic formations and within individual formations. Some consistently need more water per well because of the properties of the rock in the formation. For example, in 2019, nonsaline water use intensity for wells in the Duvernay Formation (part of the Woodbend Group) was more than 21 times higher than it was for wells in the Glauconitic Formation.
Nonsaline water use intensity is expected to vary in the short term as operators test different methods to improve hydrocarbon production.
Because water use intensity starts to drop once a well starts producing, looking at intensity data over a five-year period is much more reflective of long-term use than simply looking at a twelve-month period. The chart below shows the change in intensity over a five-year period of production. The intensity of a producing well decreases by 76 per cent over these early years of production and will continue to decrease the longer the well produces.
Data from hydraulically fractured wells are organized based on a well's water use in 2019; production data, however, is pulled from the first 12 months of production, not by calendar year. This differs from the nonsaline water use intensity of other extraction technologies, where production volume is based on calendar year. For example, for a well fractured in April 2019, the data pulled on its first year of production would extend into 2020—12 months after its fracture date. The cut-off date to include hydraulic fracturing data in the intensity calculation was the end of April 2019; wells that are fractured after April 2019 or wells that do not have 12 months of production data are not included.
Basing water use intensity off of 12 months of production data has its limitations:
- It does not account for long-term production. Wells can go on to produce for decades without using more water; therefore, the true overall nonsaline water use intensity cannot be represented. (Above, however, we did show what intensity looks like for five years of production.)
- It does not account for varying strategies that can be used to produce a well, such as restricting early production in order to extend a well's operational life and increase the estimated total resource recovery. Such a strategy would result in a higher intensity in the first 12 months—not because water use is higher than normal, but because production is restricted in order to maintain reservoir pressure and recover more hydrocarbons over the life of that well.
- It does not account for different trends in completions technology.
To make meaningful comparisons, we compare the data of companies with similar annual hydrocarbon production. In the graphs below, companies are sorted by their BOE production over 12 months, ending in April 2020. The graphs default to companies that produce over 20 million BOE per year; this can be changed using the "Company volume" filter.
The tool below can be used to find a specific company’s annual production.
Water-Use Intensity by Project
Generally, companies that use greater proportions of recycled and alternative make-up water have lower nonsaline water use intensities. However, several variables affect the volume of total water used to fracture a well, including fractured length, vertical depth, and number of fractured stages. Although more water may be used because of those variables, they may also result in greater production, which means that there could be little effect on nonsaline water use intensity.
The chart below shows the hydraulic fracturing nonsaline water use intensity by company for wells fractured in 2019.
The nonsaline water use intensity by geological formation or group aggregated by annual company production is shown below in the chart on the left. Select a company from the filter and you will see the nonsaline water use intensity for that company. This will make it possible to compare the company’s water use intensity to the average for that production group. All nonsaline water use intensity by formation or group is below in the chart on the right.
We generally expect that nonsaline water use intensity will improve as technology and regulations advance, enabling the use of more alternative make-up water sources, and operators produce more efficiently from the formations.
Water Use Intensity by Formation
Our data shows that hydraulic fracturing activity happens mostly in areas where nonsaline water resources are abundant and existing allocations are relatively low.
Nonsaline water use intensity within geological formations (or geological groups) is provided in the chart below. The left column shows the volumes of nonsaline, recycled, and alternative make-up water used by each company in 2019; the middle column shows the hydrocarbon production for wells fractured in 2019; and the right column shows the nonsaline water use intensity for wells with 12 months of production. Hover over the nonsaline water use intensity to show both the nonsaline water volume used in wells with at least 12 months production and the 12-month production value used to calculate intensity.
Information on company performance over the past five years—specifically in water use, make-up water sources, production, and nonsaline water use intensity—is in the charts below.
The "Total Water Use" chart below shows all the water used for fracturing operations within the calendar year. The "Total Yearly Production" chart shows the production from any hydraulically fractured well within the calendar year. The "Make-Up Water Source" chart below shows the water sources used for fracturing operations within the calendar year. The "Nonsaline Water Use Intensity" figures are calculated based on wells fractured prior to May 2019 that have at least 12 months' worth of production data; all other wells have been excluded.